In some political backrooms in Quebec, the joual expression “donnez-y-la-claque” serves as a catchphrase for a bravura, give’em-the-gears performance. That is the best characterization of the remarkable, 80-minute speech Pierre Trudeau unloaded on Liberal partisans in Quebec City earlier this month. In the midst of a parliamentary crisis leading to Public Works Minister Bud Drury’s offer to resign (which the Prime Minister declined) and with his anti-inflation program still in a state of flux after five months, Trudeau managed to steer debate back to his issues: constitutional reform and the perilous state of French-English relations.
If creating a diversion in Quebec City was not his plan, it certainly looked that way. Despite a government becoming increasingly tangled in its own string, Trudeau managed to see election prospects in his plan to bring the British North America Act, which created the country, home from Westminster where only the British parliament can change it. Although the venerable document has been on few people’s minds since the last major failure in 1971 to achieve federal-provincial agreement on “patriation,” Trudeau claimed that a national referendum or election might be a “way of testing the will of the people to slough off traces of colonialism.” To opposition leader Joe Clark that smelled more like a “fishing expedi-
tion for election issues.” (Constitutional “patriation,” a non-word used to describe the reality of bringing home something that was never here, is not the PM’S only bit of forward thinking these days. The same high-level team of economic mandarins that created the Anti-Inflation Board is now trying to flesh out Trudeau’s vision of the “new society” under Privy Council eminence Michael Pitfield—at least, the group is looking for ways to get out of wage and price controls before the next election, expected in 1977, if no national lust for fighting colonialism develops before then.)
Fittingly, Trudeau’s conveyance to lunch in Quebec premier Robert Bourassa’s bunker-style apartment in the Legislative Buildings was sombre: a wine-red Cadillac rented from a local funeral home. Despite Chateaubriand and vintage Chateau Haut-Brion, the tabletalk left Trudeau with a sour taste. He failed to get Bourassa’s agreement to move ahead on patriation, threatened to try without Que-
bec’s participation and rejected Bourassa’s pitch for a federal bailout of the $800-million Olympic deficit. (Bourassa waved a national poll he’d taken showing support throughout Canada for more direct aid.) Later in his evening speech to Quebec Liberals, Trudeau figuratively took off his gloves (and literally loosened the tie at the neck of his mauve-colored shirt). Punctuating his pitch with Franglais and fingers, Trudeau mocked Bourassa’s appeal for funds, Quebec’s reticence to patriate the Constitution and took a swipe at Bill22, the controversial language act which he called “political stupidity.” Although Trudeau had praise for the law’s spirit and its attempt to preserve French as the main language, reaction centred on Trudeau’s barbs at Bourassa, particularly his suggestion that it might take the Premier, a fellow Harvard grad, two or three days to understand one of his arguments. Except for the remarks about Bourassa, which reflect Trudeau’s tendency to blow sour notes in his best performances, the speech ranked as one of his best, particularly since it reflected his ease at being home, near his roots.
In contrast to Trudeau’s heated performance. Bourassa was restrained in a television interview a few days later when he noted it was not unusual for Quebec premiers to be attacked by Ottawa. As Bourassa knows—and as Jean-Jacques Bertrand and Daniel Johnson knew before him—it has not always been unhelpful to Quebec premiers at election time either. Indeed, in a phrase reminiscent of Johnson’s scraps with Trudeau. Bourassa said he would “risk unpopularity with the federal government in the interest of establishing Quebec’s special place... Quebec is not a province comme les autres.” The Premier also said he had contacted his provincial counterparts and hoped to create a united front against any attempt by Trudeau to patriate the Constitution alone. Supportive statements followed from such premiers as New Brunswick’s Richard Hatfield and Allan Blakeney of Saskatchewan.
Despite an air of spontaneity, Trudeau arrived in Quebec well equipped with notes and briefings on the Constitution. It has been a longtime goal of Trudeau’s to bring the Constitution to Canada (eight years of personal effort and 50 years, in all, by governments). As Trudeau put it in Quebec City, “it’s a Canadian Constitution, what’s it doing in Britain?” Trudeau revived the discussion about patriation in the 1974 Throne Speech debate, after dropping the subject when Quebec rejected the 1971 Victoria Charter. He returned to the subject last April at a private dinner with federal and provincial ministers and followed up with letters, suggesting a less wide-ranging review than happened at the Victoria conference: patriation and a formula for amending the Constitution. The responses were generally favorable and in November a docu-
ment of proposals was finally put together.
Because Quebec had ended hopes of agreement at Victoria, Ottawa first sought a tentative accord from Quebec City that could, in turn, be bicycled around to the other capitals. After desultory meetings and telephone calls, however, Ottawa perceived the talks were stalled by Quebec’s desire for guarantees on cultural affairs. Of particular concern to Quebec were ways to insure that a Canadianized Constitution would protect the provinces’ desire for a strong say in areas such as communications, language and immigration policies. To break the impasse, Trudeau was advised to go to Quebec and make his pitch for a patriation of the Constitution with an amending formula—with actual changes in powers to be worked out with the provinces later. That point got lost, however, when Trudeau suggested in Quebec he might act unilaterally if Quebec didn’t go along with his idea. Back in Ottawa, Trudeau sought to modify the impression that he had decided to act on his own. Ottawa would seek agreement from the provinces and only if that failed might parliament be asked to pass a resolution that would start the process.
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